Surviving on self-sustaining business models with craftspeople often growing their own raw materials, the sector has also been the pioneer of inclusion and environment-friendly practices in a true sense.
By Jonathan Kennedy
India has been known for its art and craft across the globe for centuries. The huge variety of craft-forms and astonishing artisanal skills are borne from India’s deep tradition, the vast geography and rich history. In turn, this has driven a continuous increase in handicraft exports. With export growth of 1.6 per cent, year-on-year during April-November 2018 (as per IBEF reports) the largely disparate crafts sector has also made a significant contribution to the national and state exchequer. As one of the largest employment generators after agriculture, the sector is a key means of livelihood to India’s rural and urban population. Surviving on self-sustaining business models with craftspeople often growing their own raw materials, the sector has also been the pioneer of inclusion and environment-friendly practices in a true sense.
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One wonders, therefore, if enough is being done to maximise the potential of Indian craft for greater yields for the national economy and contributing to improved livelihoods of artisans at local community levels. A look at the demographics of the artisans provides some insights. According to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts report on Cultural Mapping of India (under UNESCO’s Programme on Cultural Industries and Copyright Policies and Partnerships) ‘rapid change in lifestyle, ageing, and negligence, the vast repertoire of knowledge and wisdom that sustained and nurtured the community, is fast disappearing’.
The crafts sector operates very closely with the agriculture sector – as several of the artisans belong to farming families. But agriculture draws far more attention, and rightly so, from the Government and private sectors alike. Is there a leaf out of India’s agriculture book we can pick to give the crafts sector its due?
Let us look at the green revolution that changed the fortunes of India’s rice, wheat, jowar, bajra and maize producers. It took the vision, commitment and science of one man and his team to nearly treble India’s foodgrain output from an annual average of 81 million tonnes during 1961-66 to 203 million tonnes in 1997-2002 (basis Government of India data). Could this visionary thinking come into play for the crafts sector? The tangible and intangible heritage of India’s crafts sector is part of its DNA and should be the nation’s competitive global advantage.
There are many government, private, and social sector initiatives that attempt to do this such as the Government’s National Handicraft Development Programme, Antaran- a craft-based livelihood programme by the Tata Trust, and even British Council’s own Crafting Futures Programme. But these may not be enough.
Additionally, arriving at a single or a set of cohesive solutions for the crafts sector demands that we answer some basic questions. What constitutes crafts? Do carpets, metal works, silk and embroidery all constitute craft? Who is an artisan? Will an accomplished Meenakari artist-turned-successful-entrepreneur living in Delhi’s Defence Colony also count? The major players need to collaborate to ensure a systematic approach to the challenge of sustaining the crafts sector – from survival to flourishing.
The need of the hour is a deep and complete view of the sector, its constituents, and its people. Unfortunately, such holistic data and documentation do not exist. While noteworthy attempts have been made by the Government through the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) collating data around exports in the sector, research-based data to quantify the uncontested economic value of the crafts sector in India is still missing. British Council, is, in part attempting to shore up this major omission with a range of emerging partnerships such as FICCI, UNDP and UNESCO.
The clarion call is for India to take a serious look at its crafts culture and bring this to the forefront. More has been done with less in other economies, and with more than 3,000 craft forms (and counting), India looks to be sitting on an untapped goldmine. With the right support and a conducive business environment, the Indian craft sector has the scope to become a billion-dollar marketplace across the globe, exemplifying all that is best about Made in India.
There is, of course, an implicit contradiction in the crafts sector. Hand-made skill and scale of product manufacture are typically at odds. The beauty of the Indian crafts is beyond aesthetics; it is also its close connection to hyper-local cultures and sustaining community traditions. Therefore, the risk of losing this je ne sais quois is palpable, with the onset of new technology in manufacture and the continuous thirst for new products and design, such as we see in the move from handloom to mechanized manufacture. Can a systematic approach be developed which both values and nurtures the intrinsic value of crafts skills and opens out product design, manufacture and heritage to new markets in India and beyond?
Jonathan Kennedy is the Director Arts at British Council India. Views expressed are the author’s own.